I have compassion fatigue. Unlike the sense of physical fatigue which haunts me from late afternoon until early evening each day, compassion fatigue can’t be cured by rest, sleep, a nap, or putting my feet up. I think the first step toward addressing my compassion fatigue is admitting: I have compassion fatigue. Hey, it works for drugs and alcohol. I have a problem. (Does anyone know if there’s a 12-step program for compassion fatigue? )
I don’t think I’m alone. A close examination of the map reveals a compassion fatigue deficit at frightening proportions. We’re having trouble caring for everyone who is beaten, brutalized, and hurt by a world that is just plain mean.
It is hard to be a Christian without some measure of compassion fatigue. We should be physically and emotionally exhausted. If church is easy, reflexive, and simplistic without a hint of exasperation then something is wrong. Then we’re doing church the wrong way in the wrong place.
One noted psychologist defined compassion fatigue as “a state of exhaustion and dysfunction, biologically, physiologically and emotionally, as a result as a result of prolonged exposure to compassion stress.” (Doesn’t that sound like a typical Sunday at church?) The psychologist, Dr. Charles Figley, went on to add that symptoms may include behavioral changes, exhaustion, cardiac issues, numbness, depression, becoming easily startled, and a decreased sense of purpose. (Check, check, check, and check.)
The phrase may be new (first appearing in print in the early 1990’s) but the idea of compassion fatigue is as old as empathy and compassion itself. Immanuel Kant argued otherwise. He though empathy impedes morality. Empathy wasn’t really required for someone to be a moral person. We know what happens when morality is detached from politics and society. Time and time again, Kant was proven wrong. Whether in Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Russia, or Milosevic’s Serbia, morality divorced from empathy led to human suffering on an epic scale. To see and respond to such needs on a regular basis for seventy years has been exhausting, especially for mainline Protestants. People who help others or care about the world beyond themselves become worn out and tired. Call it what you will, it’s a reality of the human condition. Yet, despite our compassion fatigue, the world is a better place.
Compassion fatigue is an underlying premise in liberation theologies. If we’re unable to empathize and feel suffering on some level, how are we able to truly help the marginalized, the needy, the poor, the forest fire victim, the hurricane victim, the flood victim, the everything coming in from around the world victim, answer emails from advocacy groups, call your senator about that “big” issue, and so on? Welcome back to compassion fatigue. What do we do? How do we go on vacation from the need to be compassionate people?
We can’t pause, stop, or break from the need to be compassionate. That’s not the way Christianity works. It is possible, within the larger community of believers, to share our responsibilities with others. We cannot and shouldn’t function alone. Phone trees, email lists, and conversations work. Ask for help when needs arise. Are we raising money, making kits, or finding shelter for the night? We must rely upon the body of Christ to meet the needs of the body of Christ.
The antidote to compassion fatigue isn’t less compassion. It might not even be rest. The world isn’t getting safer, saner, or less dangerous. The answer, I believe, is living as Paul describes in Ephesians 4. “Be angry without out sinning. Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.” Anger is exhausting, one might even say fatiguing. Anger saps our ability to be compassionate. The world wants to make us angry at every turn. Hence Paul’s reply, “Don’t provide an opportunity for the devil.” Let’s not be part of the problem.
Paul has two grand ideas: don’t do anything that might hinder your ability to be compassionate or harm the community’s ability to assist you in being compassionate. In Ephesians 4:28, Paul says, “Thieves should no longer steal. Instead, they should go to work, using their hands to do good so that they will have something to share with whoever is in need.”
Theft is a crime. It takes away our sense of safety, sanctity, and security. A burglar is thief; so are storms, hurricanes, fires, and floods. All invade, destroy, and take what isn’t theirs to take. Each leaves persons in need of compassion. Paul says we should all be in a place to give compassion, in a community. Our compassion does no good if we’ve excluded ourselves from the community. How does he phrase it at the end, “with whoever is in need”? That’s compassion in community, moving beyond fatigue.
He makes the same point again, this time, with language. “Don’t let any foul words come out of your mouth. Only say what is needed for building up the community so that it benefits those who hear what you say.” Language can be destructive or compassionate. Will our words be for the benefit of the community in times of need?
Will we use our gifts and graces for the whole of the community, that is, will we ask for help when we are overwhelmed? Will we speak in ways that build each other up? Do we have the courage to say, “I’ve got compassion fatigue and need your help to keep going?”
I hope so. None of us can do any of this thing we call church alone. We need each other. That’s the only real answer I have.
Richard Lowell Bryant